Paolo Sorrentino certainly understood that film-goers and writers and would link this film to “La Dolce Vita” (Fellini) and “La Notte” (Antonioni). There is also a touch of Visconti. He has given us the 21st Century version.
We meet the elegant Jep Gambardella on the eve of his 65th birthday party, and journey with him through his flaneur lifestyle in high society Rome. He lives in an apartment looking out over the Coliseum, and above a nunnery and school. So the film is sprinkled with nuns, who are a charming contrast to the party people and posers, the counts, countesses, artists, actors, faded famous people, a cardinal with his eye on possible election to Pope, and even a visiting 104 year old saint (who seems to be modelled on Mother Teresa), who inhabit Jep’s social life.
He does work occasionally, as a writer of feature articles, and some of the best dialog is in the conversations with his female editor, who also happens to be a dwarf.
When Jep was 18, he was in love with a goddess-like young woman, and he is sustained by memories of that lovely young woman on an island by the sea. Throughout the film we see the wide expanse of the ocean around the island where he last saw her – he can even see it on his ceiling. (Is this a reference to Antonioni’s “L’Avventura”? – just a thought! Because in L’Avventura a young woman inexplicably vanished forever at the very beginning of the film – on an island), just as this girl vanished from Jep’s life.
Jep knew in his early teens that he was “destined for sensibility”. He certainly has an artistic sensibility, but by 65, has also become cynical.He has long ago succumbed to the sweet trap of hedonism. In one scene, his patience wears thin, and he tires of listening to a friend’s claims to a happy and fulfilling life. He verbally demolishes her utterly by telling her what he knows and sees as her reality, describing it so accurately that she has to leave the gathering.
A magician friend of his is preparing a show, where he makes a giraffe disappear. Jep asks him, “Then make me vanish too,” – such is his disenchantment with forty years of feeling disconnected. However at other times he is affectionate, indulgent, and genuinely enjoying himself. He gains considerable comfort from wandering home from parties in the early hours, seeing the glories of Rome, watching the city awake. He has some temporary affairs but nothing seems to fill the abyss within him. He has learned, since turning 65, that he has no time now, for doing things he doesn’t want to do.
Although in his youth he wrote a highly admired novel, which gained him fame and admission to the high-society, he hasn’t done much since. People are always asking him why he never wrote another book, but Jep has strolled through life, not quite a full participant, but largely as “Observer”. He says that he was looking for The Great Beauty,(perhaps last seen on that island), which he says that he never found. At least, not until he went to visit Arturo, a widower, who introduces him to his new girlfriend. Actually they are a middle aged couple. He asks them, “What are you going to do tonight.” His friend explains that the woman has some ironing to do, they’ll have dinner, a glass of wine, watch some TV and go to bed.” Jep is truly envious of their obvious state of mutual love, and their normality – something he has long since lost touch with. He says to them sincerely, “what lovely people you are.”
His encounter with the Saint, and with these ordinary people gives him, at the eleventh hour, the strength to drag himself out of the trap of la dolce vita, and go on a pilgrimage to that island where he last felt he could touch ‘the great beauty’, when he was 18. These scenes are inter-cut with the Saint’s pilgrimage on her knees to a holy Roman shrine.
This director is a stylist, and the opulent look of Rome, its ancient monuments, and its modernity, is ravishing. The sun floods down over the city, and night lights twinkle like stars in the cosmos. Echoes of Fellini and Antonioni are always there – doing honor to both the departed Masters and Sorrentino, the modern Italian master. The music soundtrack plays an evocative part in the creation of the beauty of this movie – winner of the Best Foreign Language Category at the 2014 Academy Awards.
The film is suffused with nostalgia and regret. There is melancholy, and the characters seem to be on an exhausting roundabout ride to try to forget their pain and disappointments. They are on the brink of despair, having a wild time, dancing, drinking, using drugs – and Jep sees it all. Rome makes you waste a lot of time, he says.
The message is there at the very beginning, when a Japanese tourist, who is on one of the seven hills of Rome, taking photos, suddenly collapses in a fainting fit, (caused by Stendahl Syndrome, – defined as being overcome by Beauty).
Thereby, the real message of the film is announced in the opening scene.